Manitoba History: Book Review: J. P. Bertrand, Timber Wolves: Greed and Corruption in Northwestern Ontario’s Timber Industry, 1875-1960

by Graham A. MacDonald
Victoria, British Columbia

Number 53, October 2006

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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This is not only a book about history, it is also a book with a history. In the early 1970s, those interested in Northern Ontario’s past had, at some point, to visit the fine regional history collection of the Brodie Street Library in Thunder Bay. There, in addition to the great classics of the fur trade and continental exploration, were to be found many lesser known and obscure works, such as Walpole Roland’s Algoma West (1887). The novice seeking an overview might find himself turning to J. P. Bertrand’s Highway of Destiny (1959), a sound general interpretation of the expansion of the natural resource frontier in this part of Canada, both before and after Confederation. Bertrand’s book was a good companion to other recent scholarly works on the area such as Elizabeth Arthur’s Thunder Bay District, 1821-1892 (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1973) and the official history of the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests by R. S. Lambert and Paul Pross, Renewing Nature’s Wealth (Toronto: Ontario Department of Lands and Forests, 1967). Bertrand’s text was one with a large sweep, but regionally valuable by virtue of the writer’s great insider knowledge.

Joseph Placide Theodore Bertrand (1880-1964) hailed from the Ottawa Valley and came to the Lakehead area in 1900 where he entered the lumber industry. Through his direct involvement in business he accumulated a vast knowledge of personalities and procedures, the details of which he recorded and added to his ever expanding historical library. Highway of Destiny was the late work of a lifetime observer well grounded in the standard sources and who brought to his writing a critical perspective on the virtues and vices of industrial capitalism. But did Bertrand write anything else?

The present writer put forward this question in the mid-1970s. There were in fact, a tantalising series of references in Chapter 13 of Lambert and Pross, to a 1961 Bertrand manuscript called “Timber Wolves” apparently deposited in the Ontario Archives. I made a note to seek it out on my next visit to Toronto. It later came as a surprise, given the conventions of historical citation and research, to be told at the main desk that the manuscript was not available for inspection. Not satisfied, I sought out the Chief Archivist, who confirmed that the item was there but unavailable, for “legal reasons.” There was nothing to do but retreat, but somewhat puzzled, for after all, the work had been cited with the blessings of the Ontario Government itself. That there was something more to this was confirmed by one of the editors of the volume under review, for Throd J. Tronrud states that “Draft copies” had “found their way by mysterious means into several archives where they were made available to researchers.” (vi) Or not, as the case may be. It is of interest then, to see the emergence of this well-travelled, but rarely seen, manuscript in a well edited, illustrated edition, with the blessings of Bertrand’s daughter, Jeanne Bertrand McLean.

Timber Wolves is written from a positive business point of view, but is by no means a sustained exercise in business hagiography. Proper respect is shown for those engaged in disciplined and credible enterprise, but Bertrand’s main purpose is to provide a critique of sharp practices in both the private and public sectors. The “Timber Wolves” in this manuscript are of course, wolves of the human persuasion, and the term is not always a complimentary one. Alternatively, his targets are identified as “timber miners,” “pirates,” “privateers,” “trespassers” and “thieves.” The “legal” issues involved with the manuscript no doubt had much to do with the potential litigation implications of Bertrand’s liberal references to personalities and the judgements passed. As a close student of official commissions of enquiry, he was in a singularly good position to judge the contents of such reports owing to his first hand knowledge of many of the key actors. He had, as he states in his own Foreword “a good post of observation.” (x) About many of the earlier builders of the lumber, pulp and paper industry, he contended that their “devices to obtain exportable pulpwood, without paying Crown dues, their trespassing on Crown Reserves, and their intrigues behind the scenes to gain favours with political leaders, are fairly well outlined in the pages below.” (x) It is no wonder then, that this manuscript was kept under wraps for so many years.

The approach to the topic is essentially chronological and thematic. The early days of lumbering in this quarter are described with much good illustration of the social history of the camps and of the technology of woods operations. The industry is linked, in the first instance, to larger western transportation and national development thrusts towards Manitoba in the 1870s. Local industries were also stimulated by the mining rush to Silver Islet Strike after 1868 and the spread of interest onto the mainland, particularly in the region southwest of Thunder Bay. In 1884, commencement of construction of the Port Arthur, Duluth and Western Railway (the old “Pee Dee”) is touched upon and the manner in which this ill-fated railway become of greater importance in opening up timber country rather than to long term mining activity. Bertrand also treats of the importance of railway tie demand and the piling industry in connection with the development of major dock facilities at Port Arthur. Another theme is that of the growing consolidation of woods operations and the rise or the pulp and paper industries after 1900. The ups and downs of these industries are traced, with special attention to the “lush twenties” and the depression years of the 1930s, the overall story taken down to 1960.

J. P. Bertrand (1880-1964), author of Timber Wolves.
Source: Timber Wolves: Greed and Corruption in Northwestern Ontario’s Timber Industry, 1875-1960. Thunder Bay: Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society, 1997.

The ambiguous relationship between logging and mining interests is central to the discussion in much of the book. In the early twentieth century, says Bertrand, “Timber operators at the Canadian Lakehead were not devoid of imagination.” (49) They took the view that patented mining locations carried with them timber rights with no stumpage dues, and this, therefore, seemed to be an open invitation to ship pulpwood to American mills. This led to mining interests actually being unofficially, but systematically, engaged in lumber operations making for a rampant series of expansions of the mining frontier, largely for this secondary purpose. Wolves move in packs and Bertrand points to the importance of the patronage and profit making abilities of the “old Tory Timber ring” in the first two decades of the century (87-90, 144). The abuses were finally addressed in the Royal Timber Commission enquiry of 1920.

The later chapters involve description of the spread and consolidation of larger units of production, with particular emphasis on the politics of regional mill development, Canadian-American timber export relations, the complications of the depression, and post-war expansion and contraction. Bertand once again proves to be a master of detail. Much of interest is said about the relationship between politicians and important business promoters such as the enterprising American. E. W. Backus and the influential Minister of Natural Resources in the Hepburn administration, Peter Heenan, to mention just two. After 1920, efforts at official reform in forest practices and resource allocation were regular, but frustrated, for as Bertrand makes clear, the all pervasive nature of the patronage role of the old Department of Lands and Forests was such that governments, new and old, found it difficult to resist the temptations of conducting business more or less as usual. Economic conditions also change, and the discussion of the shift in political opinion with respect to the important “manufacturing condition” clause, first legislated in 1897, as a way to attract mill development to the Canadian shore, offers a good insight into why governments under economic pressure usually seek to respond by means of the path of least resistance (108, 113-114, 131). As a businessman of patrician sensibilities to the values of land and life, Bertrand was of the view that undue influence of various kinds represented the main threats to a well functioning capitalist economy in the natural resource sectors. Reform in public administration needed to go hand in hand with strong legal strictures against monopoly power and patronage favouritism (108-110).

The photo of Bertrand shows him with a magnifying glass in hand. It is appropriate for little in the commercial history of Northern Ontario escaped his notice. This leads to a question, however: where are the documents behind the Timber Wolves? There is little doubt that Bertrand had all the information in hand, probably as memoirs, annual reports, correspondence, reports and notes made in the wake of interviews. Occasionally, one gains a glimpse of his sources in the text, but in general the book is without formal documentation and without bibliography. With reputations rising and falling on almost every page, it is surely important to know the basis of the assertions. It would be good to know if Bertrand’s extensive personal set of papers has ended up in a public repository. Finally, industrial geographers will be grateful for the excellent series of maps provided by Ian Hastie and the Biographical Appendix by Elinor Barr is a most useful supplement to the main text.

Note: In 1973 the reviewer was Quetico Park Historian and lived at Jackpine, Arrow River, on the old “Pee Dee” route.

Page revised: 29 June 2012